They look like balmy lagoons you could just dive right into, but this cluster of lakes is actually volcanic, the water whirling with sulfur. Found atop Mount Kelimutu on the island of Flores, Indonesia, three crater lakes each have different, changing colors, creating an effect like giant magical mood rings.
Keli means “lake” and Mutu means “boiling,” so swimming is definitely off the cards, but the spectacle of the multicolored craters is one of Indonesia’s most extraordinary sights and attracts thousands of tourists. According to volcano and earthquake data source VolcanoDiscovery, when a Dutch visitor fell into one of the lakes in 1995 and a five-day rescue effort ensued, measurements were taken and the temperature read 37 degrees Celsius, while surface bubbling was observed.
NASA Earth Observatory has taken satellite shots of the three lakes on different days and attributes the color changes to volcanic vents that release steam and gases like sulfur dioxide. Like blood, when abundant oxygen is present, waters take on a deep red or even black color. Less oxygen results in water that appears turquoise-blue or green.
Zinc, lead, and other minerals are also present in large quantities. The tourist ministry of Indonesia noted that besides blue, green, red, and black, sometimes the waters appear milky white or even chocolate brown.
A great deal of local legend surrounds Mount Kelimutu, which stands at 5,544 feet in altitude. Legend holds that Ata Polo was a human-eating male witch, and Ata Mbupu was a kind-hearted, well-respected man. A great battle ensued between the two characters over the fate of two orphans, who Ata Polo wanted to eat, and Ata Mbupu wished to protect. Their black and white magical powers clashed, causing a huge earthquake that destroyed both men.
Thus, Ata Mbupu disappeared into the green-blue lake known as Tiwu Ata Mbupu, while Ata Polo was swallowed up by the earth, upon which the red lake known as Tiwu Ata Polo formed. The third lake, Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai, is believed to hold the souls of young people.
Since one lake is associated with good, another with evil, and a third with innocence, the local Lio people believe that when spirits come to Kelimutu, the mythical guard at the gate of the three lakes decides which one they will enter, based on their life and character. Each year on August 14, offerings such as pork, nuts, and rice are left on rocks next to the lakes, with the intention of appeasing spirits that might otherwise use their powers to lure people to die within the waters.
Visitors from around the world agree that the best time to hike up to the lakes is early morning after the pre-dawn mist lifts, when the water appears more active, changing color as the sun rises.
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